Earth Day is April 22. On Saturday, countries around the globe will participate in awareness activities and teaching programs focused on protecting the environment. Much of the conversation will be about the growing concern over sustainability and how it relates to our food.
What sustainable means when it comes to food is usually defined as a personal connection to the food. It’s also tied to how growing the food affects the environment through the use of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers in farming. As the movement toward sustainable food grows, we are asking questions. Is it locally sourced? Is it seasonal? Is it organic? We didn’t always have to ask these questions.
In a way, it’s like back to the future. A century ago, most the foods we ate were those “in season” and sourced within 50 miles of where we lived. It’s usually cheaper and more delicious. This is, in fact, the essence of farm-to-table.
Farm-to-table can be misleading, however. While produce usually comes from a farm of some sort, many of these are corporate farms. And nearly all of our meats come from factory farms, huge industrial operations focusing on efficiency. It’s why Americans, in general, pay less for food (as a percentage of income), than almost any other country in the world.
Organic, sustainable foods in our market have one major disadvantage to consumers. They are frequently too pricey for many to afford.
More than a trend, sustainability has become part of our lexicon and an environmental and human-rights issue. Many consumers (especially millennials), make purchase decisions on how they feel about what they buy. And they demand to know more about how their products are sourced and manufactured. They want to buy from companies that support causes important to them. Even if it means paying a bit more, including for food.
Detroit (and Michigan) is at the forefront of change. There are projects, initiatives and opportunities in the Detroit area for getting involved in the sustainable food movement — just check out the box for the many resources available. I’m reminded of the proverb, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”
Agri-hood — urban farms, often with living facilities and farmland located close together —are cropping up all over town, many times offering inexpensive or free produce to those in need. An urban u-pick apple orchard is in the works (the first in the country). Community farms are prevalent. Post-industrial facilities and vacant lots are growing food (with and without permission). It’s about investing in the future of our people and our community. And although still a small percentage of food sales, supermarkets and farmer’s markets are loading up on organic produce and other products, including, poultry, fish, meats (including grass-fed beef), and organic, locally produced eggs, cheese and dairy.
Home gardens are becoming more popular, also fueled by millennials, who are maturing on a consistent diet of messages regarding health consciousness and the concept of social responsibility. Websites are devoted to home gardening how-tos for everything from indoor herb gardens to rooftop farms to raising chickens in your backyard.
For the cook, the best part about eating sustainably grown foods is flavor. For years, as a caterer and cooking instructor, I was a farm-to-table advocate and I didn’t even know it. One of my most popular food questions is regarding choosing “good” produce. My quick answer always involves asparagus. I say that while you can buy asparagus in February, it’s a spring vegetable. It grows locally in Michigan from April to June. And so it goes with all produce. In short, the best is what’s in season in your neck of the woods.
The following recipes are perfect for Earth Day or anytime, with seasonal March/April/May crops, asparagus, strawberries, rhubarb, mushrooms, arugula, kale, parsnips and fresh herbs.
Annabel Cohen is a caterer, cooking instructor and chef in Metro Detroit.
Roasted Asparagus with Strawberries Vinaigrette
2 pounds thin asparagus or larger spears, with ends shaved with a vegetable peeler
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 tsp. fine sea salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
3 cups sliced fresh strawberries
1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
1 tsp. minced garlic
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp. maple syrup
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Place the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat oven to broil.
Trim woody asparagus ends off to the tender part of the stalks. Arrange the asparagus on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook for 8 minutes (or a bit longer if the stalks are very thick). Remove from oven and transfer to a serving dish. While the asparagus is hot, sprinkle the strawberries over. Sprinkle the parsley over all.
To make the vinaigrette, whisk together all ingredients except olive oil. Slowly whisk in the oil (a little at a time) until the mixture is uniform (emulsified).
Spoon the dressing over the asparagus and serve warm or at room temperature. Makes 6 servings.
Arugula, Mushroom, Chevre and Egg Toast
For each serving
1 tbsp. butter
1 cup sliced fresh mushrooms (any variety)
1 tsp. minced garlic
Sea salt to taste
Fresh ground pepper to taste
1 slice good quality bread
2 tbsp. Chevre (soft goat cheese)
1 fried, poached or scrambled large egg
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 cup fresh baby arugula
Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
Melt butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and garlic and saute until the mushrooms are just beginning to give up their liquid. Season to taste with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Set aside.
Toast the bread until golden. Place on a dinner-sized plate. Top with crumbled Chevre, arugula and the cooked egg. Season to taste with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and serve. Makes 1 serving.
Parsnip, Bean and Kale Soup
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 tbsp. minced fresh garlic
1 tbsp. fresh thyme leaves
3 cups vegetable broth
2 cups 1-inch diced, peeled parsnips
2 cups diced carrots
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups cooked white beans (such as cannellini or Great Northern)
1 cup fresh peas
4 cups thinly shredded (julienned) kale leaves (tough rib removed)
Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium-heat. Add the onions and saute until softened, about 6-8 minutes. Add the garlic and thyme and saute for 1 minute more. Raise heat to high and add vegetable stock, beans, parsnips and carrots, and enough water to just cover the vegetables. Stir in 1 tsp. salt and 1/4 tsp. of pepper, and bring to a boil. Cook for 30-minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add the peas and cook another 10 minutes.
Just before serving, bring to a boil again and stir in the kale until wilted. Adjust salt and pepper to taste and serve.
Brown Sugar and Oats Rhubarb Crumble
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup rolled oats (uncooked)
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp. salt
5 tbsp. melted butter
2 1/2 pounds fresh chopped rhubarb (stalks only/no leaves)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Prepare topping: Combine all ingredients in a bowl and toss well with your hands.
Combine rhubarb, sugar and flour in a large bowl and toss well. Transfer to an 9-inch pie dish or 8-by-8-inch pan and top with the crumble. Bake for 1 hour, or until the topping is golden. Cool before serving. Makes 8 servings.
10 Steps to Eating Sustainably
■Educate yourself — ask questions about food sourcing
■Buy seasonal foods (find out what’s seasonal in your area, visit ahealthiermichigan.org)
■Buy organic, if possible
■By Fair-Trade certified products
■Volunteer — help out at a community farm or garden
■Plant a garden — small or large
■Eat less meat
■Limit buying bottled water
■Learn to cook — homemade is always best
Working toward sustainability sources
Earth Day Network: earthday.org
Michigan seasonal fruits and vegetables: ahealthiermichigan.org
The Michigan Urban Farming Initiative: miufi.org/
The Greening of Detroit: greeningofdetroit.com
The Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s Earthworks Urban Farm: cskdetroit.org/earthworks
Sustainable Table: sustainabletable.org
Local Harvest (finding farms and farmers near you): localharvest.org/detroit-mi
Detroit Food & Fitness Collaborative: http://detroitfoodandfitness.com
Fruits and vegetables grown within city limits: http://detroitagriculture.net
Eat Wild: eatwild.com
Core Orchards Detroit: coreorchards.com
Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development: michigan.gov/mdard
Sustainable Agriculture: sustainableagriculture.net
Michigan Farm Council: http://michigansmallfarmcouncil.org
FoodLab Detroit: foodlabdetroit.com
One Green Planet: onegreenplanet.org
Fair Trade Products: fairtradeusa.org
Food Tank: foodtank.com
D-Town Farm: d-townfarm.com
Detroit Dirt (compost): detroitdirt.org
Food Field: foodfielddetroit.com
Hantz Farms: hantzfarmsdetroit.com
Agrilicious (find local products): http://agrilicious.org